Experience The Best Of Panama In One Week (Okay, Maybe Two)

a few months ago

By Jessica Wiegandt

“Stop the car, stop the car! I just saw a sloth!”

I whip my head around and search through the trees, trying to spot where I had just seen the beautiful, lazy creature. But it had blended back into the jungle. It didn’t even matter, though, because as I turn my head back to the front of the car, I witness a herd of escaped cattle racing past our car, a campesino 10 yards behind chasing them down.

I love Panama.

This country is constantly stimulating, with lush greens, rushing water, cries of exotic birds, and the smell of freshly plowed soil. At Kalu Yala, we work our weeks away, building the world’s most sustainable town. However, halfway through the semester we’re given 9 days to explore and better know the country in which we are living.

Until break, I hadn’t explored the country outside of Panama City, but I was about to embark on the best trip of the semester, and you can too by following this guide to must-see destinations.

Stop 1: Casco Viejo, Panama City – 2 Days

Casco Viejo is a great place to get your feet wet in Panama. Translating to “Old Quarter,” this UNESCO World Heritage site lays claim to the Historic District of Panama City.

By day, this is a calm, remarkable environment, filled with beautiful buildings and museums. By night, it is a bustling, captivating club scene with music spilling from countless rooftop bars and dance clubs.

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The view from French Square, Casco Viejo in the right. // Photos by Jess Wiegandt

What to Do:

– Visit the Fish Market and take a tour of the old and new markets. Then sit down and order some ceviche (I recommend the Pulpo).

– Check out French Square, a walkway bordering the Pacific Ocean, for great views and good deals on souvenirs.

– See the Panama Canal from the Miraflores Visitor’s Center. You can’t visit Panama and not see the canal. Go between 9-11 a.m. or 3-5 p.m. for the best chance of seeing a ship pass through.

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Luck struck at 11:30 a.m. as we rushed up to the top floor to catch the last boat for the morning, going through the locks.

Where to Stay:

  • Luna’s Castleis in the center of Casco Viejo, costs $14/night and includes breakfast, WiFi, and bike rentals. The bracelet given to you at the beginning of your stay will also get you $0.50 beers and $1.00 cocktails at the bar downstairs.

Where to Eat:

  • El Trapiche is about an 8-10 minute taxi from Casco Viejo but is quite possibly the best Panamanian food in the city. It’s cheap and you’re guaranteed to have a lot of food on your plato tipico.

Stop 2: Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro – 3 Days

From one sea to the next, visit Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean and get ready for island life. On the main island, Isla Colón, surfing and snorkeling reign as the main activities. On less popular islands, biodiversity is high and nature is thriving. Take a boat tour or check out a cave during the day and tour the food sceneafter your adventures.

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Coconuts, blue water, soft white sand… It can’t get much better.

What to do:

  • Relax on the beach for a day and soak up the sun. Rent a surfboard from your hostel or bodysurf the perfect waves. Extra points for singing the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song in full before the waves pull you under.
  • Dive with La Bugaand discover the beauty of life underwater.
  • Zip the Rainforest with the Bastimentos Sky Zipline Canopy Tourand see the world from above.

Where to Stay:

  • Palmar Beach Lodgeis on Isla Bastimentos and is the only hostel onthe beach in Bocas. At $15/night, this dorm-style living gives you the opportunity to meet world travelers and enjoy living life on the beach.
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The typical view on a water taxi from Isla Bastimentos to Isla Colón.

What to Eat:

  • Palmar Beach Lodge boasts a tasty menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Happy hour is from 5-7 p.m. and evening activities are well worth attending.
  • La Buguita on Isla Colón is a favorite amongst many. After a good dive or surf session (or even just walking around town), the delicious food here will fill you up. Be sure to order the Hotoctopus appetizer.

Stop 3: Boquete, Chiriquí– 3 Days

Near the border of Costa Rica, this mountain town is located in a Cloud Forest and has a cool climate year-round. Home to the tallest point in Panama and some of the best coffee in the world, this stop is not to be missed.

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Finca Dos Jefes grows and produces coffee in conjunction with lunar cycles. There’s a reason, and you can find out why on the tour!

What to do:

  • Hike Volcán Barú. At 3,475 meters (11,400 feet) high, this volcano is the tallest location in Panama. It is best to start this hike around midnight on the clearest night during your stay. It will take around 12 hours to complete in full (6 hours up, 6 hours down) and will reward you with 27 kilometers of beauty. The sunrise is breathtaking and you can see both oceans from the summit.
  • Take a coffee tour at Finca Dos Jefes, where you’ll leave a 2.5 hour tour with bags of beans, the smell of freshly ground coffee, and knowledge of what it means to farm in compliance with biodynamics.
  • Rappel a waterfall with the Boquete Rock Climbing School and be ready to get wet and wild.

Where to Stay:

  • Bambuda Castle claims to be the only castle in Central America and operates as a fully functional, beautiful hostel. For $14/night, you can stay on the mountain, overlooking the town of Boquete and admire the backdrop of Volcán Barú in the distance.
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That’s Volcán Barú in the distance. Look at how small the moon looks!

What to Eat:

  • Boquete has good eats all over. Big Daddy’s has great seating and salad bowls that could last 2 meals. Local bakeries spill warm and buttery smells into the streets at lunchtime, and the food truck at Boquete Brewing Company will draw you in for a few pints.
  • If you’re keen to save some money, Romero’s Grocery is open 24 hours a day and the hostel has a full kitchen available to all guests.

Stop 4: Kalu Yala, Tres Brazos Valley – 2 Days or Forever

Kalu Yala is a sustainable town in the middle of the jungle. It was founded in 2011 and has grown steadily since. There is an institute offering a multitude of programs and an outfitter that is excited to take visitors on hikes surrounding the property. There are swimming holes, backpacking trails, slacklines, fine dining and a pub, and an edible farm forest. Visitors be warned, you may come with intentions to only stay for a few days and find yourself here for much, much longer.

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Cooling off in the Pacora River always makes a hot afternoon bearable.

What to Do:

  • Take a walk to Paradise Pool, crossing the neighbor’s cow pasture and splashing down the Pacora River to this amazing jump site.
  • Hike the Altos de Pacora Loop Trail, a 15-mile trail leading to a small mountain town with views of the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans.
  • Visit the on-site distillery and learn about the process of making rum in the jungle.

Where to Stay:

  • Book your visit and stay in the hostel at Kalu Yala. Accommodations include a tent, air mattress, and linens. You will sleep and wake in the valley set against the breathtaking background of the mountains in the Tres Brazos Valley. Every night, the sunset paints the mountains shades of purple, blue, and green. $50/night includes all meals  and other on-site facilities such as the beach and meditation space, are open for use.

Where to Eat:

  • The Public House in Town Square is host to all community meals. Extremely skilled culinary artists prepare all meals. However, if you’re craving something more, Nueva Vista is the fine dining on site and looks out across the valley skyline with the accompaniment of gourmet cuisine.
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Taco Tuesdays have become a tradition here in the valley and who can complain when they look this good?

There is so much to do in Panama! It is easy to lose track of time exploring this diverse and beautiful country. These are some of the highlights from my travels and I hope you have the opportunity to experience the good life that exists here.

Where are your favorite places to visit in Panama? What did I miss? Leave your comments below and be sure to share pictures of your adventures!